One regional aviation expert is warning that Barbados and other Caribbean destinations should not expect any turnaround in air travel any time soon amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
On the other hand, one of Barbados’ newest regional airline partners is predicting a “significant” improvement in air travel by summer next year.
The positions were put forward during a Caribbean Tourism Organization (CTO)-organised virtual discussion on Connecting the Caribbean – Air Links in the Caribbean in the Post-LIAT Era.
Aviation consultant Lesroy Browne said the industry was far from recovering, given that there were several measures now in place that would still hamper travel.
“Air travel in the region is in a really bad state,” said Browne, who pointed out that there has only been a “trickle” of travelling taking place.
He reasoned that several factors would continue to impact the level of regional air traffic, including the requirement for a negative PCR COVID-19 test, the need for quarantine, the postponement or cancellation of several events and the fact that many people were still unemployed and their savings were drying up.
“Air travel is a necessity in the region. It will come back at some stage. How, in what form, [and] with what carriers, I think we would be speculating. I think we will just have to wait and see,” said Browne.
“Currently, there is no appetite for leisure travel within the region, not only because of the travel restrictions but also because there are thousands of jobless persons throughout the region.”
“Most of the travel in the region for leisure is dependent on some level of pull factor. In the region, those pull factors relate to the carnivals, jazz festivals and music festivals, and without those happening leisure travel is going to be at a standstill,” he added.
Noting that travelling to visit friends and relatives would largely depend on people having “extra cash”, Browne contended that those kinds of resources have already dried up for many.
“If this thing continues for another couple of months, I think it will get worse for the airlines, rather than better,” he warned.
Also pointing to the relatively small pie that some six regional airlines are now competing for, several of them in the same markets, the former LIAT employee of more than four decades said a different approach, which included more partnerships between carriers, was needed.
The COVID-19 pandemic is said to have resulted in more than US $429 billion in losses so far, and while flights have restarted in most countries and with most airlines, some experts believe a lot of repair will be needed to get the travel industry back to its pre-COVID-19 performance levels.
Chairman of InterCaribbean Airways Lyndon Gardiner, whose airline started service from Bridgetown at the beginning of August this year, had a more optimistic view of the industry.
He said he was expecting “significant” improvement by 2021, though he did not say what that premise was based on.
“I am not one of the people who believe in all of the doom and gloom. I certainly believe that we will see a return to flying. It may not be as quickly as other regions have, or it may not be as quickly as we forecast it to be [but] I certainly believe that by the middle of 2021 we should see a significant improvement over now,” said Gardiner, although acknowledging that it is difficult for anyone to predict the future performance of the airline industry.
He noted that there were “two sectors of travel” still taking place – those for leisure, which included the diaspora returning to the Caribbean; and those who were moving between islands in the region.
“I think from this point in, we should see some travel. I don’t believe it is going to be on any sustained basis in the here and now, but I think that we will have travel and from here we can see it growing,” the airline boss said.
Gardiner opted not to disclose the current daily load on InterCaribbean Airways’ 30-seater aircraft, which flies between Barbados and other islands, or say what assistance the carrier was seeking from governments to keep it flying to their destinations.
Acknowledging that all the regional airlines were currently competing on several of the same “very lean markets”, he insisted that now was not the time to think of any doom and gloom.
“The airlines may be down, but they are not dead,” said Gardiner.
“We must be nimble enough to make all of the changes and the right moves for the future, because tourism is going to come back.”
Meanwhile, Head of Corporate Communications at Caribbean Airlines Dionne Ligoure said while both arguments had merit, she believed things could get worse before they improve.
She said the current circumstance would determine the fittest of the fit in the industry.
“A level of nimbleness, in terms of one’s ability to acclimatise to what obtains, is really what would make a significant difference to who climbs this curve. It is a test of fitness on many levels to see who is able to surmount these curves, and one expect that there will be more turbulence to come,” said Ligoure.
She proposed that planning, patience and prudence would be “critical success factors in the coming months”.
Ligoure noted, meantime, that Caribbean Airlines’ temporary hub in Bridgetown, to help facilitate its expansion into the Eastern Caribbean markets, has been working tremendously well so far.
Caribbean Airlines is currently able to carry either 68 or 72 passengers, depending on the aircraft.
However, Ligoure was reluctant to disclose the airline’s current loads, or whether it would seek assistance from the Barbados Government or the other destinations it services. (MM)